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Vairamuthu’s ONV Literary Award to be Re-Examined After Film Fraternity and Writers Criticise Choice of Winner

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Vairamuthu Felicitates Writer Kalaignanam
Credits: Silverscreen India media library

The ONV Cultural Academy of Kerala, which conferred Vairamuthu, the Tamil poet, lyricist, and an accused in the #MeToo Movement, with the ONV literary award on Wednesday, will review their decision, the academy said in a statement on Friday.

This comes in the wake of backlash received by the academy from several members of the Malayalam film fraternity, writers, and other prominent personalities who expressed their displeasure on social media after Vairamuthu was conferred the award on Wednesday.

The academy said, “ONV Cultural Academy has decided that this year’s ONV Literary awards will be reviewed again as per the recommendation of the decision-making committee.”

On Wednesday, Vairamuthu became the first person outside Kerala to receive the annual honour given by the academy to writers since 2017. It is awarded in memory of Malayalam poet and lyricist ONV Kurup who died in 2016. The award comprises a cash prize of Rs 3,00,000, a plaque, and a citation.

Vairamuthu was called out as a sexual harasser when the #MeToo movement gained momentum in India in October 2018. Several women, including singer and voice artist Chinmayi Sripaada, accused him of sexual misconduct.

Many personalities like vocalist TM Krishna, filmmaker Anjali Menon, actor Rima Kallingal, and writer Meena Kandasamy, called out the academy on social media for giving the honour to an alleged sexual predator.

While Malayalam actors Parvathy Thiruvothu and Geetu Mohandas, were the first ones to condemn the award being given to the MeToo accused, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), an organisation formed for the welfare of women working in the Malayalam cinema industry, in a social media post, condemned the decision to honour Vairamuthu with the award that has been previously awarded to “eminent individuals”.

Mentioning that ONV Kurup has “left a deep imprint on the Malayalee psyche” with “evocative rhetoric of resistance and romance”, the WCC noted that Kurup’s “individual grace, dignity and humane nature” had earned him respect.

Urging the jury to “make choices that uphold the values and dignity associated” with Kurup, instead of honouring “alleged perpetrators”, the WCC wrote, “Is art created through harassment and cruelty to coworkers worth being celebrated? Art should not be an excuse for abuse.”

However, in an interview with The Cue on Thursday, filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan who is also the president of ONV Cultural Academy, said that the award was conferred on the grounds of literary merit and writing and not on character.

“The ONV Literary Award is not an award that examines a person’s personality traits. The award is given for excellence in writing. Or then a special award should be given for character. Vairamuthu was considered by the jury for his excellent writing. And I do not know if the jury knows if he is the person facing this kind of accusation. My personal opinion is that the award should not be decided on the basis of his character,” he said.

Gopalakrishnan added that he could not interfere in the jury’s decisions and that they did not have any authority to verify the allegations.

Reacting to the ONV Cultural Academy president’s statement, noted Malayalam writer NS Madhavan wrote on Twitter, “Adoor is so wrong when he said that ONV award was given to Vairamuthu for his writing and not character. Remember 2018 Nobel for Literature was cancelled because there were #MeToo charges against husband of a jury member. Be sensitive when you deal with arts, please.”

Condemning Gopalakrishnan’s statement, writer KR Meera wrote on Facebook that the award was conferred to those who were “path lights in Malayalam language”.

“I am no one to correct Sri Adoor Gopalakrishnan. But, sexual assaults against women aren’t as ‘lack of character’ as he says. It’s a lack of humanity,” she added.

Speaking to Silverscreen India, filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, one of the voices of the MeToo movement from the Tamil film industry, said, “Adoor’s statement is a very unfortunate thing. There are two problems with the award being given. In the past, it has been given to veteran artists. By that standard, there are hundreds of poets who are better than Vairamuthu. If we judge it by literary merit, it has gone to an undeserving person. There are many other poets who are deserving of the award. Second of all, when the award is given, it covers up the crimes he commits using his authority.”

Pointing out that the several complaints of sexual harassment against him, Leena said, “He met the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu after winning the award. It is intimidating for the women who have come forward in spite of so much at stake. The Chief Minister should have abstained from meeting him and instead initiated an inquiry on this. There have been several allegations against him and Silverscreen too has written an investigative article on him. In spite of all this, if no action has been initiated but only given pedestal, it is a gesture to support his crime.”

Mentioning that Kerala is a “progressive state” and giving the award “overlooks the issue” [sexual harassement allegations], Leena said, “Award committees need to be cautious about giving it to an artist who uses his very own art and the power it yields to harass women.”

Leena said she had noticed how victims are blamed in case of sexual harassment complaints.

“Those who express solidarity with the victims, show who they are and it is the same case vice versa. If Adoor says such a statement, I am trying to understand who Adoor Gopalakrishnan is. That is how I look at it. The entire MeToo movement is a toolkit for women to understand who is who. Women can understand people from whom they support during instances like this. I see it as a toolkit for women to understand people around them,” she said.

Recently, Vairamuthu, who has not reacted to the controversy, was embroiled in another debate surrounding the release of his song En Kadhala, which showcases a school girl falling in love with a much older man. The song was slammed for promoting sexual predatory behaviour on social media.

Vairamuthu was also conferred with the Padma Shri in 2003 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014.

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